Paperback Books: Memories of a vanished world

Here’s the teaser for Paperback Dreams, a PBS documentary about two Bay Area bookstores, Cody’s and Kepler’s. The whole film is posted online here at SnagFilms.

Since the mid-1990’s, more than half the nation’s independent bookstores have closed, and Paperback Dreams tells the tale of one now-closed store and a second which has struggled, surviving one closure and now back again.

I once calculated that over the course of a couple of decades I’d spent $20,000 at one of the stores, the late, much-lamented Cody’s Book’s of Berkeley. From the time I moved to Davis in 1983 with a new spouse, I came to Berkeley to shop at Cody’s about once a month, returning home with anywhere from five to ten books.

My son, Derald, often accompanied me at first, then joined my first daughter, Jackie, and then by second, Sammi, who returned home [in Davis first, then Sacramento, finally Napa] with books of their own. They loved the trips, though mostly because of Telegraph Avenue, which they found almost as fun as a circus, sometimes more so.

For me, Cody’s was a near-erotic experience, a nexus for indulging my lifelong love affair with the printed word. I’m one of those odd folk who find books a profoundly sensual experience. I love their feel, their smell, the wondrous images, the sound of the turning page — though I gave up tasting them with I left the toddler teething stage.

Cody’s was an expansive sensorium, a place where I discovered new interests, new writers, new ideas. It was part of my life, a liberating experience untouched by the cares impinging on work and home.

One of the reasons I shopped at Cody’s was a series of friendships with bookstore owners earlier in my life, doubly rewarding because once they knew my interests, they’d introduce me to books with new ideas.

I worked at a bookstore back in my college days for a delightful owner, taking all my pay in trade. Later, when I was a reporter and then city editor in Oceanside, both downtown store owners gave me credit and introduced me to countless new books and authors; I’ll be forever grateful to one for introducing me to Lord Buckley and the other for wiping out my not inconsiderable debt when I moved on. Still later, in Sacramento, a bookstore clerk gave me unexpected discounts, turned me on to some important reads, and gave me occasional news leads and foreign film recommendations.

I’ve watched the destruction of the local American book merchant with great sorrow, afflicted first by the rise of the chains, then by the discounters, and then slain by the Internet.

It’s been heartbreaking to watch the independents die, and with them, a perfect niche for a booklover to thrive as an independent merchant. They were good friends, lively people interested in ideas and conversations, and blessed with the contentment that comes from a livelihood precisely what they loved best.

Cody’s is gone now, briefly reincarnated as a pale shadow in a Shattuck Avenue storefront before finally vanishing. Kepler’s, where I’ve spent a few bucks as well, is still here.

I still shop mostly at stores, because I like to handle books before I buy them, checking out fonts and illustrations, perusing the indexes, eyeballing the references, feeling the quality of the binding and paper.

[I was about to write that it’s hard to judge things online, but then I remembered that the most delightful relationship of recent years came through an online encounter, and that commenced from nearly half a world apart. But still, I prefer the immediate hands-on approach to books, and I miss as well the little spark of community that flourishes in the independent bookstore.]

And enjoy the documentary.


One response to “Paperback Books: Memories of a vanished world

  1. In 1970, as a teen from Detroit on a summer trip to California, Telegraph Avenue and Cody’s opened my eyes to what was possible in life. Each time I was back in Berkeley, I stopped by, at different stages of life, to get my fill of books selected by a smart, insightful independent bookseller… 13 years ago, with my first wife, and last year, with my second. I don’t think Mrs. Cody will ever know how she touched me. But now the storefront was a boarded up artifact, spooky, and surrounded by Berkeley’s homeless, a sad microcosm of what has become of hope in California and America. Moe’s Books, which has a fantastic used collection up the street, just doesn’t quite do it. As i tried to take a snapshot of Cody’s sign, one of the homeless men started screaming at me, “HAPPY FATHER’S DAY! HAPPY DAMN FATHER’S DAY!!!”

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